Black Diamond Disaster

This April 1865 tragedy on the Potomac River is an often-overlooked part of Civil War history.

Writer: Crystal Brandt

On April 23, 1865, 87 men died when the steamer Massachusetts collided with the Black Diamond barge in the Potomac River near St. Clement’s Island during the hunt for John Wilkes Booth. After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 15 of that year, special orders were sent for the Black Diamond to go to St. Clement’s Island (then known as Blackistone Island) on the lower Potomac to keep a watch for Booth and prevent him from crossing the river into Virginia. The Black Diamond’s crew of 11 set off from Alexandria, Va., heading to Piney Point in Southern Maryland early in the day April 22, before steaming back up the Potomac and anchoring near the Blackistone Island Lighthouse a little after midnight.

Why St. Clement’s Island?

Officials were convinced that Booth would attempt to make his way to Leonardtown where he could hide out unnoticed. “Foxhall Parker [an officer in the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War] said that Leonardtown was a den of thieves,” according to Don Cropp, a local historian who specializes in the Civil War. Little did they know that Booth was already in Virginia. While the Black Diamond was waiting offshore, the 308-ton sidewheel steamer Massachusetts embarked from Alexandria headed for City Point, Va., en route to Fort Monroe. It was carrying about 300 men, including firefighters from Virginia and soldiers recently released from Southern prison camps or convalescent hospitals in the North, many of whom had been nursed by Clara Barton.

 

Barton was a pioneering hospital nurse during the Civil War who went on to form the American Red Cross. According to reports, although it was an overloaded, older vessel never meant to carry as many as 300 men, the Massachusetts made its way pleasantly downriver for most of the journey. As the evening turned to night, strong winds caused the water to become rough. At about 1 a.m., the vessel’s captain and pilot mistook Black Diamond’s single light for a light on land, likely a result of the poor maritime conditions, and steamed ahead, striking a lethal blow to the Black Diamond on the port side. The collision also damaged the Massachusetts, crushing its bow above the waterline, prompting the boat’s captain to command everyone onboard to the stern in hopes of raising the damaged bow from the water.

Doomed and sinking

When the Black Diamond unexpectedly swung alongside the Massachusetts, the crew was ordered to board it, convinced that Black Diamond was a rescue boat. In reality, the barge was doomed and sinking. About 150 men reportedly jumped, with more than half of them drowning. Survivor George Hollands, a corporal in Company B’s 101st Pennsylvania infantry, was among the first to jump from Massachusetts onto the deck of the barge only to realize that he had “jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.” Despite bow damage, the Massachusetts did not sink and stayed put, picking up survivors until daybreak. Many of the survivors had no choice but to remain in the water for hours hanging on to debris and listening to cries for help. Word of the collision and death toll was eclipsed by news that Booth had been killed April 26 while hiding in a barn in rural Port Royal, Va., and that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army had surrendered to General William T. Sherman at the Bennett Place on April 26, 1865, marking the second and last major stage in the process that ended the War Between the States.

A newsworthy incident

“There were bigger stories to tell,” says Karen Stone of the St. Mary’s County Museum Division. Stone recently published an article on the Black Diamond disaster in American Civil War magazine. (She and her publication are the primary sources for material in this article.) “If it had happened two weeks later, it would’ve been a major story,” Stone says. Although it was overshadowed at the time, Stone says that the history of the Black Diamond disaster is an interesting story and an important story. “Everybody always says no one died during the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, but that’s not true. Eighty-seven men did indeed die,” she says. Don Cropp agrees, and for that reason, he organized the first event a few years ago to honor the lost and forgotten who died that day. It has become an annual event organized by St. Mary’s County. •